Back in late 2019, I discovered a few Snarky Puppy concert videos on YouTube from our very own Jake Funkmayor. This was one of the first 2019 shows that I heard, and it is a very unique and entertaining show! As far as I know, “Big Ugly” was only performed once during the Immigrance tour…and it happened at the NODA Brewing Company in Charlotte, North Carolina! Chris Bullock’s “Bling Bling” also makes its second-ever live appearance. Longtime trumpeter Mike “Maz” Maher was unavailable, so Jay Jennings played trumpet and flugelhorn with the Pups for about two weeks. Three keyboardists were featured in the Charlotte lineup: Justin Stanton, Bobby Sparks, and Shaun Martin.
Coven – The audience quiets down when Justin, Jay, and Chris Bullock start playing the opening melody of “Coven,” written by Chris McQueen. Their harmonies blend together smoothly and effortlessly A low G# drone emerges from McQueen’s guitar, and then it shifts up a whole step to A#. Jason “JT” Thomas sets up a dark groove in 7/4 meter, and Michael League adds his funky bassline. Justin switches to the Fender Rhodes, and Zach Brock doubles Jay’s horn melody on his violin. Bullock plays his bass flute for the second verse, and Shaun adds some spacey voice-pad chords on the Mellotron. Bobby contributes some subtle organ chords as well. McQueen starts the arpeggios for the solo section. Some high-pitched cowbells and stacks penetrate the mix, thanks to Nate Werth’s tasteful percussion technique. Zach kicks off his first solo with heavy delay. He plays several simple but unique melodic figures before going in an offbeat and bluesy direction. Overall, it’s a more restrained but effective solo reminiscent of a Jimmy Page solo from the 1970s. After the bridge, Justin takes a Fender Rhodes solo. Like Zach, he also keeps it relatively simple. The chromatic runs are less wild, the rhythms aren’t stuttering, but it’s still a groovy solo. It’s entertaining to watch Justin’s movements as he plays – he really feels the music with his whole body! JT takes some liberties with the timekeeping while managing to hold everything together in the complex 7/4 meter…wow! The Pups play the outro and the tempo slows a bit before the final chord.
Embossed – Nate Werth and JT play the opening tandem rhythms and they’re off to the races! I find it interesting that Nate plays the groove on timbales and bass pandeiro rather than hand drums. In previous shows with Keita Ogawa or Marcelo Woloski on percussion, they often used congas when playing the “Embossed” groove. McQueen does the opening melody on slide guitar, and Bobby adds some swirling organ for good measure. Zach doubles McQueen’s melody the second time around, and the horns add stepwise harmonies centered around the D minor tonality. The band settles into the pocket before the chorus, and Shaun & Bobby come on strong with their synthesizers. Michael’s syncopated bass line keeps everything sounding fresh and funky. Then McQueen takes a solo and goes insane! He starts with some rhythmic chopping interspersed with brief melodic riffs before he starts shredding like mad. Eagle-eyed viewers might notice in the video that McQueen’s slide falls off his finger mid-solo and Michael quickly picks it up. After the solo, Michael puts the slide back on McQueen’s finger! Quite an amusing and funny moment. Chris and Jay nail the tricky horn line while Bobby turns up the funk with his distorted clavinet comping. In the outro, Bobby and Shaun milk it on their synthesizers and Zach joins in on the fun. Justin doubles the bassline on the Prophet. Nate, JT, Michael, and McQueen hold the fort down rhythmically right up to the end.
Bling Bling – Justin plays the opening chords on the Fender Rhodes before JT lays down a very heavy backbeat. Then Bullock delivers the melody on tenor sax – no effects here, just pure sax. The horn/violin section plays the melody with chordal support from Bobby, Shaun, and McQueen. Jay uses the Harmon mute to give his trumpet a pinched, nasal sound. JT and Nate play slightly behind the beat giving the tune an off-kilter, trip-hop feel. Next, JT takes a fiery drum solo as Justin and McQueen accompany him. Nate adds some amazing colors and timbres with the metallic percussion. The boys hit the verse again and take it out. The horn/violin section hits some pretty high notes towards the end. A trippy, funky tune with a great prog-rock chord progression. Short but sweet.
While We’re Young – Michael and JT establish a solid groove. Bobby sets it up on the clavinet before Zach and the horns sneak in. Zach switches to the dual melody with McQueen. Bobby’s sustained organ notes heighten the mellow ambience of this track. Next, Shaun Martin does his thing on the Moog synthesizer. He starts his solo with some sparse melodic motifs before amping it up. He changes the filter mid-solo to produce a wet, spacey effect. He later reverts back to a slightly drier sound and continues to wail. It’s another fine solo with plenty of brilliant ideas and outstanding keyboard trickery! Bobby adds some funky clavinet under Shaun’s solo. The horns attack the bridge, and McQueen freaks out on the slide guitar. The standard outro is played, and the last chord is held for quite some time. Michael adds some melodic fills over the last chord.
Grown Folks – The entire band is on FIRE here! Michael, Bobby, and McQueen bring the FUNK right out of the gate, and Shaun adds a repeating figure on the talkbox. The horns play the opening melody. Justin and Bobby’s chordal stabs help set up the horns’ tight, pointed melody. Justin riffs on the Prophet for a few bars. After the horns play the chorus, Bobby raises the roof with his distorted wah-clavinet line doubling Michael’s insanely funky bass line. JT sets up the B section with a tremendous drum fill. Things simmer down as the horns take center stage with their melody. Then Bullock turns up the heat with a lengthy saxophone solo. He uses every imaginable trick in the jazz solo book – sustained whole notes, rapid sixteenth notes, wild ascending and descending runs, extreme dynamics, altissimo…you name it, he plays it! Bullock continues his solo as the band transitions to the section in C minor. Bobby’s organ swells and drones are very prominent here. Shaun takes another fantastic Moog solo over the outro. It’s chock-full of blazing sixteenth-note triplet runs, modulation, and bent notes – what else do you expect from a masterful musician like Shaun? After the outro, the crowd gives Snarky Puppy a huge, enthusiastic ovation. Michael welcomes the crowd and thanks Breastfist for opening the show. He also gives a birthday shout-out to the man himself, Justin Stanton! As it turns out, several other fans share the same birthday as Justin, prompting Bobby to perform an impromptu clavinet version of “Happy Birthday.”
Chonks – Bobby and Shaun fire up the crowd with their dual clavinet/talkbox line. Then Shaun rises to the top with his talkbox melody. For me, Shaun’s talkbox and Bobby’s clav are the defining elements of “Chonks” because they add so much grit and swagger. Zach and the horns (including Justin on trumpet) add some neat harmonies before running with the melody for a bit. McQueen’s rhythmic picking and chopping drives the band forward, along with JT and Nate’s backbeat. Shaun plays some low notes on the talkbox, and Bobby goes up high on the clavinet. After the bridge, the Pups hit the chorus again. Jay steps up and solos like a madman. He starts off with a subdued, mellow tone before he starts climbing higher and higher. Jay throws in some incredible bebop licks and piercing high notes too. Bobby glides all over the clavinet before the band returns to the bridge. Shaun and Bobby lock in during their break, and Bobby adds a crazy fill. The final verse and chorus proceed normally. In the C-sharp minor outro section, Michael and McQueen play the heavy-rock guitar line perfectly in sync. After the horns’ melody, Bobby goes totally nuts on the clavinet. It’s a complete showstopper with plenty of overdrive, bent notes, frantic chromatic runs, and shrill high notes. Michael introduces Bobby right at the end of the tune.
Tio Macaco – Nate sets it up on the hand drums (congas, bongos, and djembe) before switching to the mounted metallic percussion. It’s an impressive display of Nate’s unique ability to create melodic patterns using mostly non-pitched instruments. Bullock enters with some bass flute licks before playing the famous melody. Jay, Justin, and Zach come in to layer the harmonies. The band launches into the bassless arrangement, with Michael keeping time on the Moroccan krakebs. McQueen also elevates the percussive element by chopping on the upbeats. The horn solos follow, with Bullock going first on the C flute. Jay and Justin follow on their trumpets. Michael, Bobby, and McQueen latch onto the B-flat minor bass line. After the modulation and slow transition, Nate & JT launch into a blistering percussion duet. Justin hangs around to add some Fender Rhodes accompaniment. Nate starts out playing some insane polyrhythms on the hand drums while JT keeps time with the Brazilian baião groove. JT gets plenty of time to shine with some rumbling fills of his own. Soon, Justin begins showing off by playing bass on the Prophet and chords on the Rhodes simultaneously. JT shifts to a disco-type groove and Nate moves to the metallic percussion and timbales. Justin settles on a particular rhythmic and tonal figure for a minute or two before Nate and JT stick the landing. The crowd goes bananas, and Michael introduces Nate, JT, and Justin. Michael then says, “We’re gonna do a song we haven’t done in a very long time!”
Big Ugly – Apparently, hearing Snarky Puppy play “Big Ugly” in concert is rarer than spotting a Sasquatch. So concertgoers in Charlotte got a real treat. Justin, McQueen, and Bobby open it up. JT rolls on the cymbals and Nate adds wind chimes for some sparkle. Michael uses his Moog bass on this tune. Jay mutes his trumpet whilst playing with Bullock and Zach. JT comes in with syncopated rhythms between his kick, snare, and hi-hats. The horns, strings, and synths sing a bit before the drop happens! Bobby adds chordal stabs on the organ underneath McQueen’s serpentine guitar riff. Zach takes another solo with an overdriven effect. It’s full of amazing melodic ideas pulled right from the Jimi Hendrix playbook. After Zach wraps it up, the horns play the melody of the bridge before everything dies down. Zach adds a shrill “dive bomb” effect on the violin. McQueen and Justin tackle the dual lead on guitar and Prophet as Bobby lays down the quarter-note clavinet line. Shaun adds some 80s-sounding synth chords under Bobby’s line, and the percussion section tightens its grip. McQueen, Zach, and the horns play the chorus, and then McQueen revs his engine…it’s time for another solo! This one is truly outstanding, as McQueen takes the audience directly to Shredsville, USA. His dynamic style is on full display with plenty of whammy-bar action, pentatonic and chromatic licks, and notes in the extreme registers. After one last play-through of the chorus, half the band drops out except for JT, McQueen, Bobby, and Shaun. Michael thanks the crowd for coming, and Snarky Puppy leaves the stage briefly amidst loud cheering. Michael returns and talks about the GroundUp Music Festival before introducing the band and crew. Chris Bullock – a native of Asheville, North Carolina – gets a REALLY big cheer from the fans. Shaun Martin also teases an after-party at a fan’s house, to everybody’s amusement.
What About Me? (Encore) – This one starts off at a brisk tempo before slowing down considerably. Bobby’s overdriven clavinet cuts through the mix like a knife through butter. Nate’s congas and JT’s drumming keep the intro rooted firmly. McQueen’s steady rhythmic playing is just on point. The horn/violin section struts its stuff for a while until JT and Nate pick up the pace. Bobby adds a cool descending clavinet riff with every single note bent out of shape! At the bridge, Bullock plays the solo melody with backing from Justin’s Rhodes. As the music fades, Michael introduces Justin who solos on his arsenal of keyboards. He starts on the Prophet synth with a funky, offbeat bass line before moving up higher in the range. JT uses the rims of his drums to keep time with his kick and snare, and Nate uses his metallic percussion. Nate and JT shift to a half-time house groove. Justin plays some high-pitched Rhodes chords at the same time as the low-pitched Prophet line. Bobby enters with some filthy clavinet comping. Everything melds together seamlessly. Next, Justin passes the baton off to Michael, who takes a quick bass solo – it’s pure insanity! McQueen leads the band to the outro, and JT puts a bow on it with a powerful drum solo. It’s a constant flurry of stuttering sixteenth-note rhythmic patterns, monumental drum rolls, and furious cymbal crashes – are Jason “JT” Thomas’s drum solos the musical equivalent of taking punches from Muhammad Ali? You decide. Michael keeps the bassline going by himself before Justin, Bobby, and Nate enter one by one. The entire band returns one last time over the outro before holding the last chord for ages. The audience goes ballistic and Michael thanks the crowd again before heading offstage.
This is one of my favorite shows of the Immigrance tour! The clarity, the tightness, and the energy is top-rated. The setlist is unusual, but that makes the show even more delightful. Chris McQueen’s guitar playing is one of the highlights of this show for me…if you’re a big fan of his, get this show! The solos in “Tio Macaco” and “What About Me” are not to be missed, either. My selected standout tracks from this show would be “Embossed,” “Grown Folks,” “Tio Macaco,” “Big Ugly,” and “What About Me?”
BONUS LINK: The full concert video, courtesy of the FunkCity.net channel on YouTube!
- Chris Bullock – tenor sax, flute, and alto flute
- Jay Jennings – trumpet and flugelhorn
- Justin Stanton – trumpet, flugelhorn and keyboards
- Zach Brock – violin
- Bobby Sparks – keyboards
- Shaun Martin – keyboards
- Chris McQueen – guitar
- Michael League – bass
- Jason ‘JT’ Thomas – drums
- Nate Werth – percussion
- Matt Recchia – engineering and sound (front of house)
- Michael Harrison – monitors
- Neil Macintosh- mixing
About the Reviewer
Hi! I’m Doug, and I really love Snarky Puppy. I first learned about this supergroup in 2014 when some college friends introduced me to their albums Groundup, Family Dinner Volume 1 and We Like It Here. I was amazed by the caliber of talent and how all the parts (melody, harmony, rhythm, and accompaniment) came together seamlessly.
Then on July 31, 2015 my family and I went to the Newport Jazz Festival. Snarky Puppy was one of the featured artists along with Christian McBride, Chris Botti, Arturo Sandoval, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Jon Faddis, Lucky Peterson, Kneebody, and Jon Batiste & Stay Human. Over the course of ninety minutes, Snarky Puppy played a lot of material from WLIH, including the ultra-popular “Lingus.”
I was absolutely awestruck by the infectious grooves, the wild jazz harmonies, and the mind-blowing solos that each band member took. That performance changed my life. Although it is still the only Snarky Puppy concert I have attended, it certainly won’t be my last. I hope to see them perform in the United States very soon, once things start to open up in greater capacity after COVID-19.